Between Constantinople and Baghdad: Wine, Islam and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, c. 600–1300
There is a strange paradox in the history of wine in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. While the territories which the Roman Empire had ruled in Western and Central Europe generally slipped into the Dark Ages in the 6th century AD. It was a period of cultural, social, political, and economic decline that prevailed over vast European regions like France and Germany.
It took the European continent several centuries to fully recover from the Dark Ages. On the contrary, the civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East was much more vital and vibrant during the Middle Ages. The Byzantine Empire survived as a continuation of sorts of the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe. Moreover, following the astonishing rise of Islam in the mid-17th century, an Arab Caliphate was established, which was centered in Baghdad.
This extensive empire ruled vast territories from Persia west to Morocco. During this period, it became a flourishing society, one that made spectacular progress in scientific inquiry and cultural attainment. Nonetheless, these two different cultural situations in the two regions were also reflected in their attitudes towards wine. The Early Middle Ages saw a general decline in wine culture in Western Europe. The Roman wine culture was substituted by a beer-drinking Germanic one; the wine culture of Eastern Europe and the Middle East between roughly 600 AD and 1300 AD was more nuanced than we might assume.
The tenor of this was set in the 17th century and the seismic changes which occurred at that time. In 600 AD, the wine culture of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Middle East were relatively uniform, as the Byzantine emperors ruled a great proportion of this region from their capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Here the same predominance of wine over beer and other spirits continued for a long period that had pertained in cities like Athens, Alexandria, and Rome for centuries. And this trend had spread across the regions that had been affected by Rome and Byzantium since the second century BC in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, and Arabia.
Therefore, wine was one of the main goods, which were traded between cities like Alexandria in Egypt, Damascus in what is now Syria, and further to the south along with the trade routes dominated by the Bedouins and the Arabs in the Sinai Peninsula and the deserts of Western Arabia. Today, some scholars maintain that there were more than 1,000 words to describe wine or some form of fermented alcohol made from grapes or alternatives, such as dates in use across the region in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
This all changed due to the historical events of the 610s and 620s. Sometime around 610, an Arab clansman by the name of Muhammad ibn Abdullah from the region around the town of Mecca in the west of the Arabian Peninsula claimed to have been visited by the Archangel Gabriel while praying in a cave. This was the occasion of his first revelation from God. In the following years, Muhammad began preaching at Mecca, before eventually relocating to Medina after being forced out of Mecca in 622. Despite the resistance of the authorities at Mecca, Muhammad’s followers continued to grow in number, and his teachings eventually became the basis of the religion of Islam.
By the time he died in 632, Islam had spread across the Arabian Peninsula, and in the decades after his demise, his followers undertook a series of striking military conquests that brought all of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and regions, such as Turkey, Persia and much of Transoxiana under the Arab and Muslim rule. Eventually, this vast new Islamic empire was ruled as a Caliphate (or Arab Empire) from Baghdad, transforming the world’s politics, society, economy, and culture from the Indus to the Atlantic.
One might assume that this brought wine production and consumption across this vast territory to a shuddering halt. It is, after all, well-known today that alcohol is proscribed in the Islamic world. However, the situation was much more nuanced in the Middle Ages, particularly regarding wine. For instance, there are four direct references to wine in the Quran (Koran), the religious revelations of Muhammad. Of these, one is actually quite positive, two are more ambiguous, and only one is openly hostile towards wine consumption and alcohol in general.
Indeed, many traditions hold that Muhammad himself drank nabidh, a species of wine made in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 17th century that was made from fermented dates. Thus, debates continued for centuries thereafter concerning the toleration of wine in Islamic society. Meanwhile, wine continued to play a role in the world of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East for centuries. The Arab conquests and the establishment of the Caliphate.
The reality that followed from this decidedly-permissive attitude towards wine amongst the new predominant power in North Africa, the Middle East, and the majority of the Eastern Mediterranean was that wine was still a significant aspect of social life across these regions. Throughout the golden age of Arab culture, between the 8th and 11th centuries, wine continued to play a central role in Islamic life. Far from being denounced by Muslim authorities, Arab wine poetry—in which the fruits of grape fermentation were lauded—became a prominent aspect of the literary culture of the capital of the Arab Caliphate, Baghdad.
The one aspect with a tangible difference between the pre-Muslim and post-Muhammad periods was in terms of where wine was being produced. Generally speaking, the Arabs imported most of their wine from the Byzantine Empire and other parts of the non-Muslim Eastern Mediterranean, and even within the Caliphate, much of the wine trade was handled by Christians or Jews. As such, the wine culture of the Islamic Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East during the Middle Ages was permissive towards consumption whilst maintaining a primarily hypocritical attitude towards production.
It should be clear, though, that nobody was really fooled, and alcohol was as readily available in the most cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world between the 8th and 12th centuries as most illegal drugs are in western metropolises where they are officially banned today, often with the supposed authorities and moral arbiters of consumption being some of the largest partakers.
Of course, not all of this social understanding about wine consumption was based on the policies which were set by the sultans, viziers, and senior administrators in cities like Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. There were other powers involved as well. Although much reduced by the Arab conquests of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire continued to hold control of large territories in Anatolia (western Turkey), much of the Balkans, and the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Eventually, this culture started declining even further from the 11th century on as Turkic peoples began conquering its remaining territories in the Levant. Consequently, for a while, Western Christians began occupying the Holy Land, the Middle East. Cities like Antioch and Jerusalem when the Crusades began in the 1090s. However, these conquests did not introduce an enormously-different culture towards alcohol to this part of the world. The Muslim powers had been much more permissive than we would generally associate in this respect. The foremost of the Muslim warlords of the age of the Crusades, Saladin, had been known to drink wine themselves.
Hence, it is of little surprise that major European trading powers such as the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa began establishing extensive trading routes in the Eastern Mediterranean and even acquiring territories themselves. For instance, Venice acquired possession of the island of Crete in 1204, and wine became central to the regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Eventually, and somewhat unfortunately, the wine culture developed in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Ages gradually collapsed. However, it did not happen due to any overt prescription on the part of religious leaders in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, but due to the arrival of foreign agents.
In the early 13th century, a fierce warrior people from the Asian Steppe began striking westwards into the region known as Transoxiana. This part of Central Asia is occupied by countries such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan today. Some 800 years ago, this region was reduced to the rule of the Mongols, and in the course of the first half of the 13th century, the Mongols began overrunning regions further to the west in the Middle East and eventually as far west as Hungary in Europe and Egypt in North Africa.
As they did, they destroyed the successor states to the Arab Caliphate. Moreover, diseases followed soon after as the bubonic plague began to ravage the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, in the course of the 13th and 14th-centuries, new powers such as the Ottoman Turks started to dominate these regions, fundamentally transforming their cultural and social norms, including wine. As it did, it ushered in the beginnings of a less tolerant attitude towards alcohol in this vast geopolitical region, one which has primarily prevailed down to the present day.
On this Day
8 June 632 – On this day in 632, the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah, founder of the religion of Islam, died in the city of Medina in the Hejaz region in western Arabia. Muhammad emerged as a religious leader in the cities along the major Arab trading routes of the Arabian Peninsula in the 610s. During the course of the 620s, he preached the religion as a religious prophet. By the time of his demise, most of the population of the Arabian Peninsula had been converted to Islam. During the subsequent decades, his followers launched a series of massive military campaigns that eventually brought Muslim armies as far west as Morocco, France, and Spain and east to the Asian Steppe.
Eventually, his successors would rule an Arab Caliphate, or holy empire, centered in the city of Baghdad. Typically Islam is perceived as a religion that prohibits the consumption of alcohol. So the rise of Islam and the Arab Caliphate should have led to a major decline in the wine culture of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in the following centuries. However, in fact, the situation was much more nuanced. The trade-in wine and its cultural role being more considerable across the region between 600 and 1300 than we would naturally assume.
4 March 1193 – On this day in 1193, Al-Nasr Salah-al Din, better known simply as Saladin Ayubi, meaning the ‘Righteousness of the Faith’, died at Damascus in Syria. This Kurdish general had risen to become Vizier of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and the Levant in 1169 and captured the city of Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders who had held it for nearly a century in 1087. Nonetheless, while he is revered today as a paragon of Islamic fervor, Saladin was surprisingly a noted partaker of alcohol.
Prior to his elevation to the office of vizier, he was famous for drinking wine. Even after he came to govern extensive territories throughout the Levant. His proscriptions on the sale and consumption of alcohol were sporadic and mainly tokenistic. In this regard, Saladin’s life reflects the ambiguous intolerance of alcohol that pertained throughout the Muslim world during the Middle Ages.
Want to read more? Try these books!
- Francisco Apellániz, ‘Venetian Trading Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean’, in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Autumn, 2013), pp. 157–179.
- Kathryn M. Kueny, The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam (Albany, New York, 2001).
- Paulina Lewicka, Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes: Aspects of Life in an Islamic Metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean (Boston, 2011).
- George C. Maniatis, ‘The Byzantine Winemaking Industry’, in Byzantion, Vol. 83 (2013), pp. 229–274.
- Mohammed Maraqten, ‘Wine Drinking and Wine Prohibition in Arabia Before Islam’, in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 23: Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Seminar for Arabian Studies, 21st–23rd July 1992 (1993), pp. 95–115.